The Romans in Britain: The Army
Created | Updated Jul 16, 2013
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For most of their history, the Romans were the most efficient and feared fighters in the then known world. They were better trained, more organised and more disciplined than their enemies. As empire builders, they were constantly in battle learning from their mistakes.
Organisation of Roman Forces in Britain
The legions were the main force in Britain. They were supposed to be made up solely of citizens drawn from Italy. For most of the Roman period there were only three legions in Britain, but in the early stages of the occupation there were four – the XX Valeria, the IX Hispana, the XIV Gemina and the II Augusta. The legions were rarely at full strength – there were supposed to be about 6,000 men to a legion, including surveyors, medical staff, clerks and similar who would not have been combatants, leaving the strength of a legion in battle at approximately 5,300. Similarly, a century is widely thought to have consisted of 100 soldiers, but the truth is they were originally 100 but had to be reduced to 80 due to a lack of soldiers.
A legion was divided into several sections. The smallest unit was called a contubernium, a group of eight men who would have shared a tent in camp and a room in the fortress. A century was made up of ten contubernia and a maniple was two centuries. The first cohort of a legion was five double-strength centuries (a total of 800 men - considered the crack troops of the legion) while cohorts two to ten had six normal strength centuries each (a total of four - 320 men). Legions also had a cavalry troop of 120 men who acted as messengers and scouts.
A legion was commanded by a legate (a senator of Praetorian1 rank, chosen to lead the legion), helped by ten military tribunes who were each in charge of a cohort. Becoming a tribune was the first step for young men of good family to get into politics, so they only served for a year or two, but might return later as a legate - Julius Agricola, Britain's most famous governor, was a tribune, then a legate in Britain before becoming the governor.
There were also 59 centurions, who rose from the ranks to that position and who were essential in battle. They were experienced men who knew their soldiers and were the backbone of the legion. The chief centurion (called the Primus Pilus) was a very important man in the legion. He was the centurion of the first century of the first cohort and served on the staff of the legate. The office was held for one year and after which time, the person would usually retire. The second most senior centurion was called the Princips who was in charge of the administrative staff. Centurions were paid twenty times as much as legionaries, reflecting their worth.
Ordinary soldiers in the legions were mostly volunteers. They were all Roman citizens and came originally from Italy, although later on there were some legions raised from outside Italy. They signed on for 25 years service. If they survived it, they were given the choice of receiving a plot of land to settle down on or a lump sum of money. Many lived in colonia after retirement – towns such as Colchester, which were established for the retired soldiers to live in. Veterans in these places acted as a force of trained veterans who could be called upon if required; a deterrent to attack and as a way of Romanising the natives. Occasionally, they were called out of retirement to command an auxiliary unit. Sometimes they were even exempted from taxes! One of the grievances of the Trinovantes, one of the tribes involved in Boudicca's revolt was the behaviour of veterans from Colchester, who apparently acted as though they were beyond the law. Serving soldiers did nothing to stop them as they hoped for the same privileges when they were retired.
Auxiliaries were a different type of soldier, and can be regarded as 'assistant' troops. Their role was to support the legionaries and to garrison forts across Britain, as well as Hadrian's Wall. They were not citizens and were not held in as much respect as their legionary counterparts. They were raised from other parts of the Empire and were sent away from home for their service, though they stayed in the group to which they were originally recruited. These regiments were split into groups of men with different abilities.
They also signed on for 25 years of service. For them it could be a way of gaining Roman citizenship, awarded to them and their families after their tour of duty was concluded. They were paid less than their legionary counterparts but it was recognised that they had a part to play. Their organisation depended on the sort of unit they served in. If they were infantry, they were divided into cohorts of approximately 500 men (sometimes 1,000) or into mixed cohorts (cohortes equitae) with 120 cavalry. A regiment of cavalry only was called an alae. The auxiliaries did much of the fighting in Britain and at one point in the history of the province it is thought that two-thirds of the soldiers in Britain were auxiliaries.
Discovered in the 1960s at Brougham in Cumbria (the site of an Auxiliary fort), modern technological advances have allowed in-depth analysis and identification of the bodies of two female warriors from a numerii (often referred to as 'irregular') unit. This has raised questions over whether perhaps some women fought in the Auxiliary forces. The unit was from the Danube area, which is where the Ancient Greeks located the Amazonian women!
Archaeological evidence shows us that as a rule, the Romans were also better equipped than their enemies. While their equipment did vary throughout their history, it was generally high quality. Legionaries of the Roman Republican (pre- Julius Caesar and pre - Emperors) period wore mail shirts and had oval shields but by the time of the invasion of Britain in 43 AD, the legions had curved rectangular shields known as a scutum and a type of segmented plate armour called lorica segmentata.
They were also equipped with two javelins, called pila, (one of which was a heavy javelin, the other was light), a dagger (pugio) and a short sword (gladius). Historian Peter Connolly thinks that Roman shields, due to their size (they covered most of the body) would have been too heavy to actually wield in battle. He suggests that they were carried during a charge then were rested on the ground while the legionary fought behind it. The shield was made from wood and leather and had a metal boss in the centre. Hanging from their belts, the legionaries had an 'apron' of metal studs hanging from leather strips designed to give a bit of extra protection. The sword was hung from the right-hand side of the belt while the dagger hung on the left.
The gladius was approximately two feet long and was designed for thrusting. While the type of helmets worn by the legionaries varies, the basic design is the same - it had neck, nose and cheek guards.
Centurions had slightly different equipment. They don’t seem to have carried javelins and their sword was hung on their left hand side, a reversal from the legionary position. As signs of status, they had a crest running transverse across the helmet (this also allowed them to be picked out in battle by their men), wore medals on their chests, carried a stick for punishing unruly subordinates and wore greaves2. They also seem to have worn chain mail rather than plate armour and did not use shields.
Auxiliary soldiers were much less well equipped than the legionaries. As they all served different purposes, they were all differently armed. However, they mostly wore helmets and mail shirts or scale armour, while their arms depended on their roles. Cavalry auxiliaries would have had a spear and a sword, as well as a helmet and possibly a shield.
The weapons auxiliaries did have were not the same as those of the legions. They had oval or hexagonal shields called a clipeus and a throwing spear called a hasta. Cavalrymen had 3 spears while infantrymen had two. Despite not having stirrups or a modern-type saddle, cavalry sometimes used their spears as lances. Infantrymen also had a gladius, while the cavalry were issued with a longer sword for slashing, called a spatha. Archers wore conical helmets and had an axe to defend themselves. Their composite bows, strengthened with horn, were very effective.
Roman Fighting Methods
Legionaries had one main way of fighting drummed into them during training. Normally, the legions fought in the middle with auxiliaries covering the flanks and cavalry behind. When the two armies were about 30 metres from each other, a trumpet would be blown. At the signal, the legionaries released their javelins. This caused the enemy line to stop in confusion. The pila were designed so that the metal of the spearhead would bend on impact with a shield, making it very difficult to pull out and throw back and also making the shields impossible to control. The enemy was forced to fight without shields, which made it easier for the Romans. Also, the shields and bodies littering the floor made it difficult for the enemy to manoeuvre.
The Romans then formed a large wedge formation and charged. When they met the enemy, they would put the whole weight of their charge and their bodies into the shield and smash into the enemy ranks. This would certainly knock them off balance and possibly injure them, and the legionaries took advantage of this to make short thrusts with the gladius.
When the enemy began to flee the field, the cavalry charged after them and either killed them or took them prisoner. The Romans did not believe in leaving the enemy alive to fight another day. This would have been how they won many of their battles in Britain.
Sometimes, it was necessary for the Romans to lay siege to a hill fort or other fortified place. However, they had basic tactics for this situation too. They had two main siege weapons – onagers, which were like catapults, and trebuchets, which were more like huge slingshots. These would be used to damage of break down the enemy fortifications before siege towers or battering rams were used to gain access. If the ground was too uneven to use onagers and trebuchets, a ballista was used instead. These were lighter and so easier to transport, but still had a range of 400 yards – twice the distance of onagers and trebuchets. They could fire rocks and metal balls as well as huge bolts.
One way to protect troops from missile attack when trying to gain entrance to a defended fortification was the testudo or tortoise formation. A group of 27 men formed four ranks – usually the same 27 as this meant that they knew their positions. Those in front held their shields in front of the group, those on the sides held theirs facing outwards and those in the middle held them interlocking over the heads of themselves and their comrades. This meant that there was very little chance of anyone being hit by missiles from the defences and they could push forwards on their mission to gain entrance. This would be done by using a battering ram or setting fire to the doors. Once inside, everyone was slaughtered. Siege warfare was used in Britain to defeat tribes taking refuge in hill forts such as Maiden Castle in Dorset.
Soldiers weren’t fighting all the time. However, they did have to train a great deal to make the moves second nature to them. Fully trained legionaries had drill once a day and a 19-mile route march most weeks. They also had sentry duties and took turns to serve as batmen (military servants) to their commanding officers. On the march, the soldiers were required to erect the camp. This involved digging defensive ditches, building and facing ramparts and erecting tents.
They were also required to build when in a permanent base. The fortress or fort had to be established, which involved a great deal of building work, including defences and fortifications, the commander’s house, a hospital, barrack blocks, workshops and granaries. The legionaries were also responsible for the building of roads, bridges and aqueducts as well as canal digging and quarrying. They acted as the police force, tax collectors, and as bodyguards for important Imperial visitors. They built Hadrian’s Wall and in the early period of the occupation, the army made its own tiles and pottery.
Soldiers were allowed to engage in business arrangements and in the late second century they were allowed to marry, though many soldiers had 'wives' who were not recognised by the law. In the early third century, they were granted the right to set up home, which would presumably include their wives and children and the other component of a Roman house – slaves. Later in the Roman period some soldiers' families seem to have lived with them in the forts.
Soldiers could try to get a job that made them exempt from fatigues (non-military duties), such as being a clerk or a hospital orderly. They could also entertain themselves with sports – hunting was popular. Using the baths was a way to relax and gambling was a way to have fun.
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